Every Day Leadership: managers stepping up to the crisis

20 March 2020 -

Every Day Leaders Stepping up to Crisis

While it’s hard to generalise about a national ‘management mood’, I’m picking up a sense that managers and leaders are moving into a new phase.

Thursday 26 March

Some contours to this crisis are beginning to emerge. Last week talking to managers and leaders, it was all about crisis planning. This week the words I’m hearing most are ‘action plan’. The Covid-19 pandemic is grave and biting deep into all aspects of our daily lives, but organisations and managers must look at their operations and ongoing viability. One of the most common words used by Chancellor Rishi Sunak when outlining his new intervention scheme for the self-employed is ‘operationalise’. Yes, he seems to suggest, this is an awesomely huge socialist-style intervention by a Conservative government delivered at breakneck speed, but I’m sure as hell going to make sure it functions properly.

On a similar note, we’re hearing of dramatic resource reallocation taking place in many organisations as demand shifts. Some people are busier than ever while others are twiddling their thumbs. Managers are again having to step up, identify where the demand is high, realign objectives and repurpose staff to where they’re needed. We’ll be returning to this subject in detail next week. If you’ve got experience of suddenly having to reallocate resources, please let us know. Please email us at editorial@managers.org.uk

A related issue is that huge numbers of people want to volunteer. What does this mean and look like in reality in your organisation? We’d be very keen to hear – same email.

One manager who exemplifies all this is Aaron Giudice. He’s a Chartered Manager and deputy managing director at Sowga, a business that operates within the UK facilities management market. Basically Sowga, which is based in West Sussex, maintains the mechanical, electrical and public health services within the commercial real estate sector (large multi-tenanted office buildings). Right now with the country in lockdown, most of those offices are empty.

But Aaron is still on it. There’s a business to manage, people’s jobs to protect and clients to service, albeit at a reduced level. “At the very least we must maintain the essential security, safety and legislative compliance of the buildings,” he explains. This all needs to be done without using public transport and maintaining social distancing.

In terms of the business as a whole, Sowga is fortunate to have “several excellent long-term clients who have confirmed that they will continue to pay our contract fees in full during this crisis, which should allow us in turn to continue paying our employees.” However, with the immediate future of this crisis uncertain, Aaron acknowledges that “we cannot completely guarantee that no employees will need to be furloughed, although we will avoid this as much as possible.”

Aaron has drawn deeply on his management training and Chartered Manager experiences through the tough past couple of weeks. He is determined to stay calm which, in turn, means he’ll think more clearly and make better management decisions.

These are some of the management competencies he’ll be using to help him work around and ride out this crisis.

Adaptability. For example, being prepared and able to change my approach to everyday tasks and process and encouraging colleagues to do the same, to suit the changing working landscape during this crisis.

Communication strategy. For example, utilising technology such as video conferencing, Microsoft teams and WhatsApp groups to ensure I can remain connected with colleagues and important communication can still be achieved.

Organisational change. For example, accepting and embracing the present changes to my working environment and encouraging colleagues to do the same. Try to follow the same routine timings as if you were still heading to the office.

Human resource planning. For example, planning resource requirements and approaches to both maintain the required service delivery whilst minimising risk to our colleagues.

Emotional intelligence. Managing my own emotions during this time of crisis and understanding the emotions of colleagues to ensure a culture of support and guidance which will see us through this crisis.

Diverse thinking. "Many heads are better than one” so I’ll be including colleagues in key discussions to achieve a diverse thought process and the generation of different ideas on how we can manage various challenges during this crisis.

As Aaron says: “My mission during this crisis is quite simple – to protect our business and the people within it, to ensure we have a healthy business and healthy workforce able to pick up where we left off before this crisis struck!”

Wednesday 25 March

Blimey, I’m having a lot of video calls! They’re great in many ways, encouraging regular and succinct dialogue. They’re also curiously energy-sapping by the end of the day. I will admit though that it’s quite interesting to see inside colleagues’ homes – apart from the clever ones who’ve figured out how to use ‘blur background’.

Today I spoke to Jo Owen, the entrepreneur and author of Resilience (Ten habits to sustain high performance) and Global Teams. Jo was at home in Kensington. He lives right next to a couple of central London hotels that have got zero occupancy. It’s eerily quiet.

Jo is the kind of man you want to talk to in a crisis. His entrepreneurial background means that his first instinct is to look for the positive. Starting next week he’ll be writing a series of blogs for CMI called ‘How to have a good crisis’. Here’s just a flavour of Jo’s can-do energy: “ Leaders are like tea bags,” he observes, “you only know how good they are when they land in hot water. COVID19 is the perfect teabag test, for you and your team.”


We have entered the lockdown days. In the second instalment of our diary of 'Every day leadership', we meet a manager in the frontline of the construction industry, wondering whether sites will close and what to do with his employees

Tuesday 24 March

Last night prime minister Boris Johnson made his extraordinary message to the nation, imploring them to stay at home unless totally necessary.

We are in lockdown.

I haven’t spoken to my old friend Rob in years, but now feels like a good time to get in touch. Rob (not his real name) runs a small business in the construction trade. He’s got a full-time workforce of nine people based out of a workshop in Essex. They do high-quality specialist work on sites mainly across the south of England. He also uses a handful of long-serving self-employed contractors.

I sent Rob text. “Is the situation now clear?” I asked.

Here’s his response:

“Still clear as mud, getting calls this morning asking where we are…

“Initially last night we told everyone to stay at home today so no one working. I am talking at 9am with the other Directors to work out what were are planning to do ongoing.

“We will probably try to continue on those sites where we can be sure of safe conditions , again no use of public transport. At the moment we are still not sure of 80% wage grant so all are off on unpaid leave.”

Monday 23 March

Rob was working from home when we spoke. He set himself up to do this last year and he’s seen a big spike in his own productivity. Today, though, he’s totally confused. “I thought everything was meant to be shut down, but all the construction sites are open,” he says. His team is currently working on seven sites in central and outer London.

For their personal safety, Rob’s told them that they shouldn’t be travelling on the tube, so he’s ferrying them around in the company van instead. He can’t tell his sub-contractors what to do, though, so they’re still using the London tube and train system, potentially spreading the Coronavirus and endangering others. Twitter is alive with images of packed sites and trains. There’s growing concern about what effect this will have on NHS and other key workers. Communities secretary Robert Jenrick is pleading with the construction industry to do its bit. The hashtag #StayAtHomeSaveLives is trending.

What Rob really wants is some clear direction, even if it’s that all sites should close. That would mean he could properly think about moving his full-time team into the new ‘furloughing’ arrangement under the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. He needs to be able to show that his guys can’t work. Right now, with the construction industry still open, he has to continue operating as normal - whatever normal means these days.

I’ve also been speaking to a COO in the media business. Her company works partly in the travel sector, which has totally shut down. So she’s been looking into the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme over the weekend. “It’s what we needed to stop redundancies,” she says, “and I’ve got our lawyers looking at it.” But the details about the scheme are very thin right now – unsurprisingly given the speed with which it’s been introduced – and there are a huge number of questions still unanswered. Does the £2,500pm salary that the government has pledged to meet include National Insurance Contributions? What if people want to take holiday while they’re ‘furloughed’? We’ll be looking at these questions later in the week.


Part one: Managers Stepping up to the Crisis

As the Covid-19 pandemic takes grip, I pledge to talk to a different business leader or manager every day, to discover their management challenges, responses and workarounds. I’ll keep up this diary for as long as the crisis lasts. Here’s part one

Matthew Rock

Thursday 19 March

10am. Just back from my daily conversation with a manager. Today I was able to do it in person. Yay! I met up with a senior director at a TV production company at a coffee shop in west London. We got a coffee to go, then walked and talked down by the Thames – at a two-metre distance of course.

On the business challenges right now, he’s got solid advice. First priority: stabilise the base,. Then start looking for new angles.

So for example, there’s barely any TV production taking place right now, but my contact’s company recently realised that they were close to completing a show that has yet to be sold. The value of this to the big broadcasters will have gone up significantly, given how little fresh content is being generated. So… tada! …. An enhanced commercial opportunity.

This kind of opportunity-spotting and diversification is going on all around the country. The software company Zoho just launched its Small Business Emergency Subscription Assistance Program (ESAP) and waived the first three months’ fee. Manufacturers are looking to switch into different product lines that are needed. Food retailers are supporting frontline workers with free or discounted food. Hotels are converting to hospitals. Now may not feel like a moment to pivot, but for many it has to be.

Expect to see some really creative thinking and programming coming through in the next few weeks. A lot of broadcasters are looking at formats where they can make use of talent in different and unusual locations, such as Gary Lineker’s kitchen. Don’t be surprised to see a flurry of programming about lifting people’s spirits, reconnecting to overcome isolation, learning from home. We also talked about the BBC; surely its role at the centre of UK life won’t ever be questioned again…?

A couple of final thoughts from today’s manager:

  • Try to have all-staff hangouts as well as those one-to-ones and team meetings. A lot of people I’m talking to are bringing the whole organisation together regularly too. And the ‘5 at 5’ is becoming A Thing. Five-minute end of the day catch-ups.
  • Don’t call your split teams the A Team and B Team. Who wants to be in the B Team?! How about the Green Team and the White Team, say? That’d work for Celtic supporters…

For more ways CMI can help you and your teams cope with the challenges of the Covid-19 outbreak, check out these articles:

Wednesday 18 March

10.30am. Today’s was a long call. Dr Michael McDonagh CMgr is a former senior Met Police detective who ran protective security during the London 2012 Olympics. He’s worked in counter-terrorism, murder, kidnapping and countless other extreme situations. Today he runs his own risk and crisis firm, 6E Consulting, that advises corporates and international sporting bodies. He’s the kind of man you turn to in a crisis. We had a lot to talk about.

We talked first about the Avian flu virus that hit Asia, mainly, from 2005. At the time the predictions for the UK were grim, with the expectation that up to 60% of the police force might be affected. Michael was the lead for the Met Police team, developing contingency plans.

An important thing the police did then was to develop a “previous history skills test matrix.” Put simply, this was a 50,000-line database detailing staff and police officers’ former roles. This meant that, if a large proportion of the police force was put out of action, they could be replaced by people with relevant qualifications or previous experience. “Even if they were now a senior officer, we knew who was a Level 1 driver or a public order specialist,” says Michael.

Today, in the face of the Covid-19 outbreak, he suggests that organisations run the same exercise in the background. “Find out who could step into a role if the current lead falls sick.”

Michael’s biggest concern right now – aside from getting his son home safely from university – is that organisations will find themselves reliant on crisis management plans that aren’t up to the job. “Most plans tend to be linear, based methodologies designed to survive a number of simplistic or commonplace events such as IT failure and cyber crime.” Covid-19 is quite different.

We’ll share Michael’s full insights for the CMI community in another blog, but here are some key points:

  • Every company, no matter what size, should develop business continuity and crisis management plans and capabilities to deal with the Covid-19 issue. But make sure these plans are flexible.
  • Hold business continuity/crisis meetings daily. Keep an eye on updates from the government, medical sources, industry bodies etc.
  • Sense-check every aspect of your organisation – HR, Talent Management, IT, comms, third-party suppliers, supply chains, stakeholders, sponsors, transport etc.
  • Assess what vulnerabilities you have and how to address them effectively – ie, risk reduction strategies, your response capability, what contingencies you already have in place and is your recovery strategy still valid, usable and realistic?

But Michael encourages business leaders not to overreact. He reminds us that things constantly change and to be mindful to “not decide on a permanent solution to a temporary problem”. The government has put together a £330bn package to support businesses, so let’s hope it’s enough to preserve companies and jobs for the long term.

Monday 16 March

Just got off the phone with Nadia Howell, owner-manager of L’Aquila, a west London-based food supplier of speciality vegetable ingredients into the food services and retail sectors.

When the Coronavirus spread to northern Italy where L’Aquila has three main suppliers, Nadia realised she’d need to act fast. As we speak, all three factories are open and are doing whatever it takes to remain so.

Nadia’s strategy has been to get in as many advance orders as possible – but without compromising her own cash-flow. Hers is only a small company, with ten employees. This is where good, long-term relationships come into play. By being quick on it, Nadia has bumped up her stocks so that she’s now two months ahead of where she’d normally be. By offering to store the additional supplies, she’s held payment terms to the pre-existing schedules. “We’ve made a lot of headway very quickly,” she says.

Tuesday 17 March

I’m getting loads of feedback to my post on LinkedIn about the 1988 postal workers’ strike and how that changed attitudes to communication forever. It was the moment we moved to mass adoption of fax machines for communication, and we never looked back. I reckon the same will happen now for working practices.

Andrew Try agrees. His company ComXo provides “21st-century switchboard” services. Demand is going through the roof as the Coronavirus spreads and the UK government encourages the population to avoid non-essential contact and travel.

“People are invoking working practices they’d been thinking about but never imagined they would actually need to implement,” says Andrew. He’s receiving regular calls from executives in global corporates frantically asking, “can you switch over our whole system by tomorrow?!”

The company that’s most ahead of the curve on all this is PwC, says Andrew. They’ve been rethinking their whole office strategy for several years. “They’re asking themselves: why make people traipse across to the city every day?” Andrew explains that PwC’s 30 offices around the UK are already primarily used for meeting clients and collaboration.

Saturday 14 March

My wife and children did a Parkrun. There probably won’t be any more for a while. I walked the dogs with Kate Dafter, who runs her own health food shop in west London. The past few days have been overwhelming for Kate. The day before (Friday) she’d done double her usual turnover as people panic-bought pasta and provisions. “It’s mad and I’m dead on my feet.” As a small business she can’t just call in extra staff to help cover, so she and the team are doing double the usual workload.

Thursday 12 March

A senior management team meeting followed by an all-staffer. We’re moving to homeworking. The crisis management team (codename, Think Cobra) at Think is determined to get ahead of the escalating Covid-19 crisis. If we pre-empt government advice, we’ll be up and running for when any lockdown happens. There’s bound to be lots of operational snagging to sort out, so let’s get ahead of the curve.

Late this afternoon a rather subdued prime minister Boris Johnson emerges from the official Cobra meeting to announce that many British people will lose loved ones before their time.

It’s the right time to change working practices.

Image: Unsplash